COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Teacher demands give Davis a fat softball to slug

No modern governor of California has taken more political donations from public employee unions than Gray Davis. And even though a springtime $250,000 check to Davis gave the prison guards' union a lot of publicity, over the years no union has given this governor more cash for beating back opponents than the California Teachers Association, the state's largest teacher group.

The CTA has been so generous with him for so long that Davis felt no compunction about asking for a quick $1 million contribution in a celebrated Valentine's Day meeting in his Capitol office.

While they didn't immediately come across with that money, the union teachers did give Davis a fat softball to hit out of the park. The CTA spent most of the spring demanding passage of a new law allowing teachers to bargain with school boards not only over money and working conditions, but also curriculum issues and textbooks.

The proposal, carried in the Legislature by Democratic Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles, perhaps the most liberal member of that house, and co-sponsored by fellow Democrat Virginia Strom-Martin of Sonoma County, once a teacher and union representative, appeared to put Davis in a tough bind. He was caught between one of his biggest and most loyal donors and the plain sentiment of voters, who are unhappy with the public schools and not looking favorably on teacher unions, whom they hold partly responsible for the poor state of education.

But the choice for Davis was clear: He had to go with the voters, at least for this year. Meanwhile, CTA President Wayne Johnson and other union leaders can tell members they fought the good fight.

Not only was the choice clear, but the scene presents Davis with a rare opportunity to make the case for one of his most frequent and most widely doubted claims: That political donations do not influence his decisions.

If the Strom-Martin bill had passed the Legislature as written - and it is now all but certain not to - Davis would almost surely have used strong language about its obvious flaws in his veto message. Since the bill will likely never make it to his desk, he now can credibly argue that his objections killed it.

In fact, he objected from the start to the bill as written, even before the CTA refused his in-Capitol donation request. He says he does not want to subject textbook choices and other decisions about what to teach to any bargaining process. These are now the realm of school boards and administra tors, with broad decisions rendered by the state Board of Education and local choices by superintendents and elected school boards. Put curricular decisions in a union contract, and they become written in stone, very difficult to change.

But Davis has conceded that teachers should have some role in picking texts. They do now, via advisory committees to the state board and some districts. But they have no such role in many local situations.

The simple fact is that no one is better positioned than teachers to see what schoolchildren need and could use. Giving them little or no input in local school decisions is wasteful and stupid. They ought to enjoy status here just below that of parents and elected school board members, about equal to administrators. Interestingly, that's how it's done at the university level, where University of California and state university academic senates have great clout.

But using curriculum as a bargain chip is a different story. Should unions be able to tell school boards, "We'll give you no problems about picking this or that text if you up the annual raise by half a percent?" Plainly, the potential for abuse is enormous.

So Davis was right in implying there has to be a different way to involve teachers.

But chances are a new system will not be found this year, and that the status quo will prevail by next fall. That should allow Davis to respond easily in debates, when Republican challenger William Simon Jr. accuses him of being a craven, money-grubbing donation-taker. For the history of the teachers union plan will let Davis point to how he frustrated this big donor whenever Simon begins a spate of all-but-certain harping on the prison guard donation that came about the time of a big raise for union members.

Which means all the teachers really did was give Davis a fat softball pitch out of the park - which might prove more valuable to him than any million-dollar donation.


Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His email address is thomas.elias@sddt.com.

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